Here is the real lesson from the stunning Brexit vote: Throwing a tantrum at the polls is not liberating; it is self-defeating. Those tempted to vote for Donald Trump should pay very close attention.
Brexit was a big deal, but it is not the end of the world. Reeling financial markets should recover from the shock, which has been nowhere near as serious as the 2008 meltdown. There will be some political turmoil in Europe, but I believe it will abate as everyone sees the extent to which British voters were defrauded.
It is already clear that those who chose to leave the European Union will not reap the benefits they were promised. Great Britain, or what’s left of it, will become a little poorer, less dynamic and less important. That’s about it.
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The working-class Britons who bought the Brexit snake oil likely will not see their incomes rise or their prospects brighten. Nor will they see their multicultural society become monocultural again. The whole thing was a fantasy, cynically concocted by ambitious politicians who apparently never thought the nation would take them seriously.
Boris Johnson, the former London mayor and one-time journalist who became the face of the “Leave” campaign, had the nerve to write an unctuous newspaper op-ed, published Monday, in which he counseled everyone to remain calm. Britain “is part of Europe, and always will be,” wrote the man who did all he could to divorce his island nation from the continent.
Johnson was booed by onlookers as he left his home the morning after the vote. “We who are part of this narrow majority must do everything we can to reassure the Remainers,” he wrote in his op-ed. Translation: Please don’t throw things at me.
It turns out that the “Leave” proponents maybe didn’t really want to leave – that they still want the benefits of EU membership but without the responsibilities.
Britons will still be able to live and work throughout Europe, Johnson promised, and “there will continue to be free trade, and access to the single market.” This all may turn out to be true – but to keep these benefits, Britain will have to agree to most or all of the EU regulations that Brexit proponents deemed so suffocating.
Meanwhile, the other leading Brexiteer, U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, admitted that Britain won’t actually see a savings of hundreds of millions of pounds that could be used to improve the National Health Service. Claims to that effect were a “mistake,” he said. Sorry, old chap.
Some European leaders are calling for Britain to quickly take the formal steps that would begin the Brexit process. But Johnson maintains there is no hurry – an odd stance, given how wonderful he told voters their lives would be as soon as they slipped the EU’s oppressive yoke. Could he be experiencing seller’s remorse, fearing the reaction when Britons realize the shiny new Rolex he sold them is a fake?
I hope U.S. voters are paying attention.
The Brexit solution is pure counterfeit, but the underlying issues are real. In Britain, as in this country, working-class incomes are stagnant and immigration, to some, seems out of control. Globalization seems to benefit the well-off and well-educated at the expense of everyone else. The temptation is to take refuge in nationalism – forget the rest of the world, take care of our own, fend for ourselves. Build a wall.
That is Trump’s message. But the gap between what he promises and what he can possibly deliver is even wider than in the Brexit example.
It is a cliche to say that we live in an interconnected world, but that is the truth. Globalization is a fact and cannot be repealed by referendum – or, for that matter, by slogans printed on baseball caps. Nor can technological progress be reversed by any amount of ranting and raving.
Most of the manufacturing jobs that have disappeared from developed countries are gone forever, shipped off to places where labor is cheaper or eliminated by the use of robots. Borders are necessarily porous because goods, services and people have to cross them. What we need are policy initiatives that seek to address the economic malaise in places like the north of England and the American Rust Belt. What we do not need are simplistic, jingoistic “solutions” that don’t solve anything.
Brexit could end up breaking Britain into pieces – without addressing any of the problems it was supposed to solve. I hope Trump supporters pay attention. Catharsis is not a plan.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is email@example.com.